Leaving the classroom to work in the edtech industry can feel like a sort of betrayal. In California, while the tech sector booms, a teacher shortage looms. Teacher turnover rates are on the rise, particularly in low-income school districts. For teachers at under-resourced schools, the world of startups, incubators, and accelerators appears at best decadent and, at worst, delusional and detrimental.
As a former public school teacher, I understand the sentiment. My own transition has raised a lot of questions for me. Why do people leave teaching for edtech? Do they find what they’re looking for when they make the switch? And what advice would they offer others interested in following a similar path?
The answers I found were as varied as the people I spoke with: Teach for America alumni with entrepreneurial aspirations, veteran teachers looking to support blended learning initiatives, passionate educators—growing up in failing schools themselves—hoping to increase their impact. One thing was clear, the reasons for leaving are complicated, and the decisions rarely easy.
Deciding to take the plunge
Michelle Ching got into classroom for the same reason most educators do: she wanted to make a difference. As a student, she saw firsthand the failings of inner-city public schools and joined Teach for America to change the system. But as a 2nd grade teacher in Oakland, Calif., Ching quickly became frustrated by the lack of resources—and innovation—at her school. “There were practical problems—resource issues, support issues—that needed to be solved and weren’t being addressed,” she explains. “I saw tech as a way that could solve those issues.”
Ching attended a Startup Weekend in San Francisco and designed the product she felt her students needed most: Literator, an app that builds reading skills. After spending a year trying to balance teaching with developing the product, she left the classroom to become a full-time CEO. Ultimately she felt “leaving meant having an impact beyond one classroom.”
Jeff Scheur, founder and CEO of NoRedInk, left his teaching job in Chicago for similar reasons. Scheur always knew he’d work in education, but after eight years and a National Board Certification, he was ready to reach more students. His next venture started with a few online grammar lessons and quickly grew into NoRedInk, a writing website used by thousands of students. Like Ching, leaving the classroom became a necessity as he tried to balance teaching and startup life. (Both strongly advise against doing it).
Not everyone who goes into edtech has entrepreneurial leanings. Sarah Rich, a founding teacher at the Paul Cuffee School in Providence, R.I., simply felt that after 16 years, teaching was “losing its spark.” Blended learning relit the flame.
She started serving as a FUSE RI Fellow with the Highlander Institute, becoming an edtech ambassador and “Lighthouse Classroom" for those wanting to see what effective blended learning looked like in practice. Last summer, when the literacy company Squiggle Park reached out for help with development, she decided to take a year-long leave from teaching. “Ideally, I wanted to move into a blended learning coaching position at my school, but that position wasn’t there for me,” she says of her decision to transition. At Squiggle Park, she can do what she’s most passionate about: helping teachers bring tech to their classrooms.
I’m here! Now what?
On the surface, leaving the classroom for the edtech industry seems like a sound financial decision. That certainly proved the case for Joe Vasquez, founder of Runway Incubator, who left a teaching position at Richmond High School in part because of financial strains. “I hate to say it, but it’s the truth: I get paid significantly more now than as an educator.” For him, the “harsh financial realities” of living in the Bay made teaching difficult.
But for others, leaving the classroom can mean the loss of financial stability. Michelle Ching says the biggest challenge of developing her own edtech product was simply paying the rent. “Ultimately I had to move in with family,” she describes of her first year out of the classroom. “I had to learn how to be frugal.” She knows if she hadn’t received the $25,000 TFA Social Innovation Award, she wouldn’t have been able to keep her company afloat.
For Sarah Rich, who also works at an emergent edtech startup, that uncertainty remains a daily reality. “As a teacher, I was guaranteed a job,” she says, “but at a startup, funding is a constant issue. Not having that stability makes this work, while fulfilling, challenging.”
There’s also the challenge—and sometimes, the guilt—of leaving kids behind. For Ching, who went into teaching to help families like her own, the choice wasn’t easy. “It was really difficult to leave classroom and the families,” she recalls. “I was leaving the community I had sworn to serve.” Vasquez agreed it wasn’t an easy decision. In the middle of explaining his role at Richmond High, he abruptly shifted gears. “I do miss those relationships, honestly,” he told me. “I think I need to do a better job of remaining involved. I don’t want it to be an excuse but it’s challenging to maintain a strong connection.”
But while all the teachers I spoke to admitted they’d become distanced from students, Jeff Scheur insists it’s not impossible to remain connected. “I’m still very much involved in the education ecosystem,” Scheur says. “I still call myself an educator, I still watch kids use NoRedInk. I’m still working on all the same goals I was working on as a teacher: managing people, working for kids, building critical thinking skills.”
The best people for the job
Scheur believes getting high-quality teachers into the edtech industry is necessary for building quality products. “Around 30 percent of my company comes from classroom,” he explains. “In fact, one of our five core values is to put teachers and students first. Having employees who’ve worked in the classroom helps us advocate for those people.”
I heard this again and again from the former educators I spoke to: having a background in teaching is essential for working in edtech. The biggest reason? Empathy.
Vasquez says this is a quality he always looks for when hiring. “Teachers bring knowledge of equity issues along with empathy for students. How can you understand the implications of [edtech] products without firsthand experience?” he asks. But he says teachers also have a unique set of skills that make them a perfect for edtech—"vision, management, perseverance, and the ability to build relationships.” He urges teachers looking to move into edtech to “highlight and celebrate” their time in the classroom with future employers.
But Sarah Rich cautions new teachers from breaking into the industry prematurely. “Newer teaches should stick it out for at least five years,” she advises, “mostly because each class is different. I have seen people move into edtech too quickly.” She also suggests if you’re considering a move to communicate with administrators early in case a hybrid role can be designed. “Teaching is such a magical profession,” she says. “Don’t rush through it before getting enough experience.”
Michelle Ching is less conservative in her advice. “I would encourage any teacher to make the transition if they’re passionate about the product or company,” she says after some consideration. “I think it’s important that there’s more teacher voice in edtech; we provide an equity lens and a practical approach. That said, it’s not an easy transition. Nothing as hard as first-year teaching, but working in edtech, you really need to hustle.”